On Wednesday nights, the Project Success Institute fills with the smells and sounds of a kitchen: scent of melting chocolate one week, the sizzle of cooking dumplings the next.

The chefs behind the culinary creations are Minneapolis high schoolers who chose to spend their evening at a nonprofit in the Lowry Hill neighborhood, learning a new skill and tasting the results.

"Cooking is communal," said James Rone, a project manager at the institute. "There's so much to be excited about in a cooking class — even if you're a lousy cook, the outcome of the science experiment is something you can eat and share."

The cooking class has proved to be most popular program at the institute, a program offered by Project Success, a nonprofit aimed at connecting Minneapolis students with their purpose and encouraging them to dream about and plan for their future. In addition to cooking classes, the institute offers other free trimester-long courses — including in coding, personal finance and bike maintenance — designed to develop students' interests and life skills.

Rone has been with Project Success since 2017 and started out with menus full of typical American fare like burgers and pasta. But then one student asked if they could make a traditional Ecuadorian dish that she enjoyed cooking with her family. He agreed.

"That cracked open what felt possible for them," Rone said. Suddenly students started suggesting recipes from their own cultures or cultures they wanted to learn more about. Now the menus include recipes from all over the world. Rone typically ends the class with a short lesson on each dish's history and evolution.

Chamsiyatou Iniwe, a senior at Southwest High School, was the one to suggest making dèguè, a West African dessert made with couscous and yogurt. She's been spending weeknights at the institute since she was a freshman and has earned several certificates.

"I learn a lot here, and it's something to keep me busy after school," she said as she poured the dèguè into containers to take home. The recipe was a bit different than what she makes with her mom, she said, but it still tasted great.

Iniwe has also gone on several college tours with Project Success and discovered what she's looking for (and what she isn't) in a campus. The nonprofit's other programs include theater experiences — allowing students to both attend and perform in shows — and camping and canoeing trips for students who want to learn more about the outdoors. The COVID-19 pandemic has put a pause on the group's international trips, but Project Success has also taken students on several trips abroad.

The first institute's classes were offered in 2017. By the following year, the classes had grown into full multiweek courses across a variety of topics. More than 600 students have earned a certificate in at least one of the courses since then.

During the 2020-2021 school year, classes were offered virtually and the supplies, including groceries for the cooking classes, were delivered to students' homes.

"Students were so engaged because they could tell that we really cared about them and wanted them there," Rone said.

Being together on Zoom wasn't comparable to meeting in-person but it allowed relationships to continue, he said. The virtual cooking class proved just as popular as the in-person one, which has a waiting list.

Laura Garcia, the director of schools and curriculum at Project Success, said students coming to the program often express interest in learning independent-living and career-building skills they may not otherwise get during the school day.

"Then they come and they feel like they can be themselves here, so they keep coming back," she said.

Oliver Czel, a senior at Southwest, has enjoyed learning new cooking skills and meeting students from other schools.

"It's such a nice community of people and a great way to spend a few hours," he said.

Czel's favorite recipe so far has been the fudge, even though his turned out a little lumpy. But Rone reassured him and the other students: seized up chocolate may not look perfect but it still tastes good.

Jessica Loma, a sophomore at Patrick Henry High School, was also excited to take the fudge home to her family. She enrolled in the cooking class because she wants to learn to cook before living on her own in a college dorm.

"Plus, this is way more fun than sitting at home after school," she said.